WASHINGTON/BEIJING (Reuters) - Major U.S. airlines are expected to change how their websites refer to Chinese-claimed Taiwan by Wednesday in an effort to avoid Chinese penalties, three sources said, after coordination between the carriers and the U.S. government.
Beijing has demanded that foreign firms, and airlines in particular, not refer to self-ruled Taiwan as non-Chinese territory on their websites, along with Hong Kong and Macau, a move described by the White House in May as “Orwellian nonsense”.
China set a final deadline of July 25 for the changes, and last month rejected U.S. requests for talks on the matter, adding to tension in relations already frayed by an escalating trade conflict.
Numerous non-U.S. airlines including Air Canada (AC.TO), Lufthansa (LHAG.DE) and British Airways (ICAG.L) have already made changes to their websites, according to Reuters checks, after China’s Civil Aviation Administration sent a letter to 36 foreign air carriers earlier in the year.
The carriers were told to remove references on their websites and other materials that suggest Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau are part of countries independent from China, but several U.S. operators, including Delta Air Lines (DAL.N) and United Airlines UAL.N, had requested more time to handle the matter.
A U.S. airline executive briefed on the issue told Reuters that the U.S. State Department notified China’s embassy in Washington late on Monday of the decision by U.S. airlines to only list certain destinations by city on both Chinese and English websites, and not refer to Taiwan as a jurisdiction.
Another source in Beijing said he was informed unofficially by the U.S. government that airlines would only use certain city names in the future.
A senior U.S. government official said the change was ultimately the airlines’ choice to make.
As of Tuesday afternoon in Asia, Hawaiian Airlines’ website already appeared to have been changed, showing searches for flights to Taiwan’s capital Taipei as “Taipei, Taipei” in dropdown menus. Searches on the websites of American Airlines, Delta and United still mentioned it as being in Taiwan.
None of the airlines immediately responded to requests for comment, but Airlines for America (A4A), a trade group representing United, American, and other major carriers, acknowledged that changes were being made.
“As with other sectors of the economy, the U.S. airline industry is a global business that must contend with a host of regulations and requirements,” it said in a statement.
“A4A and the affected U.S airlines appreciate the engagement and counsel we have received from the Administration as carriers begin to implement a solution,” it said.
The airlines were expected to make the changes by the end of the day in China on Wednesday.
“We have told China that the United States strongly objects to China’s attempts to compel private firms to use specific language of a political nature in their publicly available content. We continue to seek to address this issue,” a U.S. embassy spokesman said.
It was unclear how China might punish airlines that do not comply, but in December it added a clause to rules governing foreign airlines in the country, saying regulators could change a company’s permit if it did not meet “the demand of public interest”.
Taiwan is China’s most sensitive territorial issue. Beijing considers the democratic island a wayward province of “one China”. Hong Kong and Macau are former European colonies that are now part of China but run largely autonomously.
“The ‘one China’ principle brooks no negotiations or consultations,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told a regular news briefing on Tuesday.
“We hope the U.S. government urges relevant companies to strictly abide by the ‘one China’ principle and make changes to their websites as soon as possible,” Geng said, adding that the deadline was fast approaching and everyone should “wait and see” what would happen.
Armed by the United States, Taiwan has always been a major source of tension between Beijing and Washington, but it has been an increasingly contentious issue since U.S President Donald Trump took office.
In May, the White House said in a statement that Trump “will stand up for Americans resisting efforts by the Chinese Communist Party to impose Chinese political correctness on American companies and citizens”.
The statement added that “this is Orwellian nonsense and part of a growing trend by the Chinese Communist Party to impose its political views on American citizens and private companies”.
Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry had said that it is grateful to the efforts of like-minded countries that have chosen to “take a stand against Chinese bullying of private enterprises”.
Reporting by David Shepardson in WASHINGTON; Michael Martina, Ben Blanchard and Lusha Zhang in BEIJING; Jamie Freed in SINGAPORE; and Yi-Mou Lee and Jessica Macy Yu in TAIPEI; Editing by Tony Munroe